Back from the brink: How Japan became a surprise Covid success story | Japan

JA few days after the Tokyo Olympics ended, Japan appeared to be heading for a coronavirus-related disaster. On August 13, the host city reported a record 5,773 new cases of Covid-19, driven by the Delta variant. Nationally, the total has exceeded 25,000.

The surge in infections added to the resentment felt by an audience that had opposed the Olympics, to be told they could not watch events in person due to the pandemic. Hospitals were under unprecedented pressure, with a bed shortage forcing thousands of people who tested positive to recover – and in some cases die – at home.

Then Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, who had ignored his own chief health adviser to move the Games forward, was forced to resign amid a stubbornly low approval rate. The state of emergency in the capital and other areas that had been in place for nearly six months appeared likely to be further extended.

Yet something remarkable happened in Japan in the two months following the closure of the Games by Emperor Naruhito.

This week, nearly a fortnight since emergency measures were finally lifted, new infections continue to drop in Tokyo and across the country. As parts of Europe, including Britain, struggle to contain cases – despite a modest drop globally since August – infections in Japan have fallen to their lowest level in more than a year, triggering optimism that the worst could be over for the world’s third largest economy.

Tokyo reported 49 cases on Monday, the lowest daily figure since late June last year, when the national count stood at 369.

Experts say no single factor can explain the extraordinary turnaround in Japan’s fortunes.

But there is a broad consensus that after a desperately slow start, its vaccination rollout has turned into an impressive public health campaign that has met little resistance that has slowed the rollout in the United States, despite the Japan’s complicated historical relationship with vaccinations.

To date, Japan has administered Covid vaccines to protect nearly 70% of its 126 million people.

The government has said vaccines will have been given to anyone who wants them by November, while this week the new prime minister, Fumio Kishida, said boosters will be offered from December, starting with them. medical workers and the elderly.

Another factor cited by experts is the widespread wearing of masks – a habit entrenched during pre-pandemic flu seasons. As other countries drop face covering requirements indoors and in other environments, most Japanese people are still shaking at the thought of venturing out without a mask.

The end of the summer peak

A more relaxed atmosphere during the Olympics may have contributed to the summer peak, with people spending more time in groups during the scorching weeks, even though they were not allowed to enter the venues.

Japan lifted its state of emergency last month, though experts warned complacency could trigger another wave of infections in winter Photograph: Kim Kyung-Hoon / Reuters

“During the holidays, we meet people we rarely meet, and in addition, there are many more opportunities to eat together in a face-to-face environment,” said Hiroshi Nishiura, infectious disease modeler and government advisor at Kyoto University. .

But Kenji Shibuya, the former director of the Institute for Population Health at King’s College London, said he doubted “the flow of people resulted in infections in August.

“It is primarily determined by seasonality, followed by vaccination and maybe some viral characteristics that we don’t know about,” he said.

For now, the mood in Japan is one of optimism and a feeling that “normalcy” is returning.

Bars and restaurants that have fought to stay afloat during the state of emergency are once again serving alcohol, though they are encouraged to close early until the end of the month. Train stations are once again teeming with commuters now that many companies no longer allow their employees to work from home. Crossing the prefectural lines for leisure is no longer considered a significant risk.

While Suga has been criticized for emphasizing the economy rather than responding to the virus, recent polls show the public expects Kishida to prioritize public health, including the early approval of antiviral drugs and strengthening the capacity of health services to respond to a future epidemic.

But experts say it would be foolish to assume the danger is over, and have warned the numbers could start to rise again as cold weather approaches and people mingle in poorly ventilated bars and restaurants during the summer. bonnkai office holiday season.

“The end of the emergency does not mean that we are 100% free,” recently warned Shigeru Omi, the government’s chief medical adviser. “The government should send a clear message to the people that we can only relax gradually. “

With Reuters

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